Monday, November 5, 2012

The voluntary nature of municipal services is codified in laws made in a simpler world. If you attend a municipal meeting these days, you’re very likely to encounter attorneys, engineers and assorted vendors, all paid by the municipality to accomplish much of what was once done by volunteers. (The volunteers often remain but usually only as figureheads; the hired “experts” do the real work.) The costs of local government are rising while local control is eroded by the use of these paid advisers, few of whom live in the towns they serve.
            THE COSTS OF LOOKING THE OTHER WAY. Pennsylvania is a Dillon State. This is a legalistic way of saying that lower governments have only that authority expressly given to them by higher government. An extensive body of rules and regulations exists governing what your councilman, commissioner or supervisor can do in his or her official role. These governments are supposed be open and transparent, the governors always available, what they do always done in public. They are required to follow an extensive code of ethics.
Human nature being what it is, and probably always has been, this system requires policing, which is where it breaks down in Pennsylvania. The media watchdogs, to the extent they have any capability or interest let at all, concentrate on big governments. (It appears likely that in the face of falling revenues, media outlets are loath to anger government officials whose advertising and goo will they need.)
The states, of course, have large numbers of entities such as the attorney general and the ethics commission augmented by county district attorneys and courts, with responsibility to see that governance is at least honest and above board if not efficient and rational. There are thousands of government entities, advisers, consultants and enforcers to watch over. The political pressure is high and not always aimed at protecting the innocent. Sometimes the purpose is to shield the guilty.

Costs mount because of incompetence—doing the job the wrong way. Or because of malfeasance—doing the job less efficiently on purpose. Or through misfeasance—doing the job in a way that becomes very costly, which can be criminal. Or through nonfeasance—not doing the job at all of ignorance, malice or prejudice.
The expenses mount for municipal citizens through too many permitting requirements costing too much money, and through zoning actions that favor one landowner over another without a good planning reason. All these actions, or nonactions, can result in lawsuits against the municipality. A township in southern York County has incurred so many actions against it that their insurance has jumped by thousands of dollars.
The ineptitude costs everyone because the municipality does not take advantage of joint buying opportunities, cheaper bids or money available through grants or low-cost loans. They cost landowners and developers because every municipality has a different set of requirements that must be met before they can do business there.
Another trick is charging for services and inspection that are not done properly if at all. Of course, the list can go on for a long time. (I won’t mention the costs borne by citizens through governmental favoritism, cronyism, harassment, and even extortion; all of which happen more than most people imagine.)
Next: How to change the system

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